Tzaddik Media

Formerly New Heart, New Spirit

Understanding Paul

Why Do Paul and James Seem to Teach Two Different Things?


It seems as though everyone has an opinion about Paul nowadays. His proponents defend him and his opponents can’t stand him. Regardless of which side a person takes, it seems that if one thing is clear, it is that James and Paul taught different messages. In essence, James is for the Jews and Paul is for the Gentiles. After all, Paul appears to say that certain believing Pharisees came from James in Jerusalem to Peter in Antioch, Greece (Galatians 2:12, Acts 15) and Paul appears to oppose their actions in Antioch.

Not only this, but Paul calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:3, Galatians 2:8, Ephesians 3:1) while James appears to be primarily concerned with the Jewish believers (Acts 15, Galatians 1:18-19, 2:1, 2:9, James 1:1). Paul says “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1, NASB) and “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28, NASB). Yet, James teaches that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, NASB). One says “a man is justified by faith” and the other “a man is justified by works.” Which one is it? Both can’t be right?... Right?

To understand the apparent conflict a little better, I believe it is important to understand Paul’s role as an “apostle to the Gentiles.” What does this even mean? I would like to dive into a few other passages such as the presence of Pharisees within the early church – yes, Pharisees who believed in Jesus (see Acts 15). Additionally I would like to explore Paul’s own faith compared to what he taught the Gentiles.

Conflicting Passages?

As I mentioned in the introduction, Paul clearly saw himself as “an” apostle to the Gentiles. I emphasize “an” because Peter was another apostle to the Gentiles, especially at first (Acts 15:7). Barnabas was obviously sent to the Gentiles too and contrary to popular belief, Paul was Barnabas’ side-kick – not the other way around (in other words, Paul joined Barnabas’ ministry). We know that Paul did not replace Peter because Peter and Paul were preaching during the same time. Thus, Paul was not the only apostle to the Gentiles, though he certainly was one of them (and might I add, he was possibly one of the last apostles to the Gentiles). In the case of Peter, it appears that he had visited believers in Antioch (Galatians 2:11) and had contact with believers in Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). Also, interestingly enough, Peter travelled between Jerusalem and Babylon even according to Jewish legend.[1]

As the apostles to the Gentiles, Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and others were commissioned to preach to the Gentiles a particular message. As Peter says of a certain Gentile and his family, they “received the Holy Ghost as well as we [Jews],” thus indicating that Gentiles could be saved too (Acts 10:47, 15:6-11, 1 Peter 1:9-10). Similarly, Paul’s message was also about salvation (Acts 16:17, Romans 1:16, 2 Corinthians 1:6, Ephesians 1:13, Philippians 2:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:15-17, etc.). How was this salvation to be obtained, though? By works? By faith? By grace? Whatever the answer is, does James agree? Let’s hold that thought for a moment and consider another peculiar topic: Pharisaic believers in Jesus.

Unbeknownst to most people, not all Pharisees were against Jesus. In fact, many Pharisees believed in Jesus or at least supported his ministry. Consider the following passages: John the Baptist apparently says that the Messiah would come from among the Pharisees (John 1:24-27). Pharisees try to save Jesus’ life (Luke 13:31). Jesus says to obey the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-3). Two Pharisaic supporters of Jesus take care of Jesus’ burial honors (John 3:1-2, 19:38). Gamaliel, the chief Pharisee and ruler of the Sanhedrin, defended the Jesus-believers in front of his fellow Pharisees (Acts 5:34-39). Pharisees were part of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:5). Paul himself continued to be a Pharisee after coming to faith in Jesus (Acts 23:6, Philippians 3:5). Not only this, but Paul was formally trained by the sagacious Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) who, years later, defended Jesus’ followers. If Jesus and the apostles were against Phariseeism, how come there were so many Pharisees who supported and defended the Jesus-believers? The answer is simple: the Jesus-believers were not anti-Pharisaic and they did not preach against Phariseeism.

I know what you’re probably thinking. There are plenty of verses in the New Testament which appear to show Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees or Paul’s conflict with Jews and Judaizers. However, since this kind of conflict was common among 1st-3rd century Jewish rabbis, these debates should be seen through the lens of inter-family conflict, not as a conflict between diametrically opposed enemies. In fact, the Talmud (the enormous record of Pharisaic debates and theology) contains language not unlike the words of Jesus and Paul. Consider the following:

“[Rabbi Dosa ben Harkanus] said to them, ‘a younger brother who is a firstborn son of Satan and his name is Jonathan and he is one of the disciples of Shammai. Take care that he does not overwhelm you on questions of established practice” (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 16a).

Was this Pharisaic rabbi against all Pharisees just because he called a Shammaite Pharisee a “first-born son of Satan”? Of course not. Likewise, when we see things in the New Testament that appear to be anti-Pharisaic, we should take a step back and consider whether all Pharisees are being spoken of or just particular Pharisees, as was the case with Rabbi Dosa ben Harkanus and the Pharisee from the House of Shammai. So for now, let’s remember that all Pharisees were not bad – only particular Pharisees – and even then, they may have only been wrong about certain matters and not all matters. While maligning the Pharisees and clumping them all together certainly makes for a tight, simple, good-versus-evil kind of theology, it is not reflective of real, historical, biblical events. The Pharisees were a dynamic bunch and there was a surprising amount of diversity among them. According to the Pharisees themselves, God would sometimes call down from heaven and support the Pharisaic disciples of Rabbi Hillel over the Pharisaic disciples of Rabbi Shammai – thus demonstrating that certain Pharisees were more correct than others (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 1:4, Eruvin 13b).

As I have shown so far, Paul was a teacher of Gentiles despite being a Pharisee himself. Secondly, I showed that the New Testament is not anti-Pharisaic. On the contrary, there were many Pharisees who supported Jesus and the apostles. Not only this, but Pharisees also played a role in the early church. Next, I would like to (briefly) take a look at the message of Paul versus the lifestyle of Paul. Are there any differences? Was Paul a hypocrite? Let’s take a look.

We see that Paul taught his disciples to keep the biblical feast of Passover in accordance with the Torah (Law) in 1 Corinthians 5:8 and he himself did too (Acts 20:6). Elsewhere, we see that Paul observes Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Acts 27:9. Yet still, we see him observing another biblical festival in Acts 18:21. On many occasions, Paul observed the Sabbath, too (Acts 13, 16:11-13, 17:1-4, 18:5-10, etc.). Not only did Paul observe the biblical holidays, but Paul appears to make a Nazarite vow in Acts 18:18 and offers sacrifices in the Temple with four other believers in Jesus (Acts 21:17-26). Interestingly, he made these purifications and sacrifices to prove to people that he did keep the Law, contrary to popular belief:

“They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you… Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law” (Acts 21:21-24).
We find elsewhere that “Paul said in his own defense, "I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple”” (Acts 25:8, NASB). Clearly, James and Paul himself saw Paul as both a follower of Jesus but also a follower of the Mosaic Law (a.k.a. Torah).

Yet, Paul also seems to say in his epistles that Gentiles should not get circumcised (Galatians 5:2), despite Paul himself being circumcised (Philippians 3:5), despite Paul himself circumcising a person (Acts 16:3), and despite Paul teaching that there was much benefit to being circumcised (Romans 3:1-2). However, elsewhere Paul says that Barnabas was not forced to get circumcised (Galatians 2:3). Additionally, he said that Gentiles should not be forced to be circumcised for the sake of salvation (Acts 15) and especially not for the sake of the self-glorification of the circumcisers (Galatians 6:12-15). So did Paul approve of the practice or not? Did he advocate it or not?

Hopefully I have demonstrated to a great enough degree to show that while Paul himself kept the Law, he did not teach the necessity of Law-obedience for ethnically Gentile believers… but why? Wouldn’t this make Paul a hypocrite? After all, Jesus himself says “do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them… But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matthew 23:3b, 23:13 NASB). Jesus says that people who don’t practice what they preach are hypocrites. Thus, is Paul a hypocrite? Didn’t he condemn circumcision despite circumcising Timothy and despite saying that it was an advantage “much in every way”? Let’s hold this thought for just a moment…


In Revelation 22:13 (NASB) Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Therefore, I believe that Jesus’ life and message should be the starting point and ultimately the end-point of our resolution. On a certain occasion, Jesus prayed:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me” (John 17:20-23, NASB).

Here, Jesus prays for the unity of his disciples. I believe that God granted him this request, so it is safe to assume that there was unity and oneness between the apostles… meaning that Paul and James must have been united in their mission. Why? Because their unity would prove that God sent Jesus… and that’s pretty important.

Thus, whenever we see what appears to be a conflict between James and Paul, we must have faith that, despite appearances, Paul and James are indeed united in both brotherhood and purpose. Yet as we previewed in the introduction to this article… how can they be united when Paul says salvation is available without works and James says that salvation is not available without works? The answer lies in the fact that both are true but neither one of them are exclusively true. Let me explain how.

Paul tells his students to “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1). As I have shown, Paul did not violate the Law in his personal life and we know that Jesus never violated the Law either (1 John 3:4, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22). Thus, the Law-obedient Paul was following the Law-obedient Messiah and Paul said to follow him as he followed Jesus. But how did Paul follow Jesus? One of Jesus’ final commands in the Gospels was to baptize people in his name, make many disciples, and teach the nations what Jesus taught them (Matthew 28:19-20).

Interestingly, Judaism says the same thing: converts should be baptized (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 46b) and rabbis should bring people near to the Law (Mishnah, Avot 1:12). What’s even more interesting is that the teaching of Avot 1:12 comes from a rabbi named Hillel. Rabbi Hillel’s grandson was Gamaliel – the teacher of Paul according to the book of Acts. What’s still more interesting is that Rabbi Hillel taught the Golden Rule before Jesus was born:[2]

“On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

This is precisely what Jesus himself taught in Matthew 7:12. What we can learn from passages such as these is the historical Jewish context in which we ought to interpret Jesus and Paul’s perspective on Gentiles – considering both were Jews and Paul was a disciple of Rabbi Hillel through his teacher Rabbi Gamaliel. If we remember from earlier, a certain Pharisee called a Shammaite Pharisee a “first-born son of Satan” and here, in the Talmud passage we just read, Rabbi Shammai told a Gentile who was seeking God to go away and leave him alone! Yet, Rabbi Hillel was patient with the Gentile, teaching him that the most important commandment is the Golden Rule. After teaching him this lesson, Rabbi Hillel says the rest of the Law is the commentary on the Golden Rule (or in other words, the entire Law teaches us how to abide by the Golden Rule), then instructing the Gentile to “go and learn” the rest of the Law.

Did Rabbi Hillel command the Gentile to go get circumcised? No. He instructed the Gentile to abide by the Golden Rule and learn how to apply it by learning the rest of the Law. Although it might seem too good to be true, the apostle James actually teaches the exact same thing in Acts 15. Let’s take a look:

“Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue… 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses. 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them [that Gentile could be saved without circumcision]… 12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 With this the words of the Prophets agree… 19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them” (Acts 15:1-23, NASB).

Let’s take note of a few things in particular: the matter that was debated was brought up by “some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed.” Notice it says “some,” not all. This indicates that some Jesus-following Pharisees did not think that Gentiles should be circumcised at first because the text says that “some” believing Pharisees thought they should be. If some thought they should be, it implies that some did not think they should be. Secondly, these certain Pharisees which believed in Jesus were teaching that Gentiles had to not only be circumcised to be saved, but also keep the entire Law like a Jew did. In other words, these Pharisees believed that a person had to convert to Judaism to be saved. The Talmud, which was written by the Pharisees and their theological descendants, tells us that many rabbis did not believe that circumcision was necessary for conversion, only immersion (baptism) was (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 46a).

What happens next? Paul has a problem with this theology because this is not what his rabbi, Rabbi Gamaliel, had taught him. Rabbi Gamaliel was a follower of Rabbi Hillel and as we just read, Rabbi Hillel taught that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles who were new to the Bible and biblical religion. Rabbi Hillel knew that taking on circumcision and the entire Law was not something which Gentiles could bear. Gentiles would rightly conclude that obedience to the God of Israel was too hard, so they might as well go back to idolatry. This is why Rabbi Hillel gave the Gentile a single commandment and then told him to learn the rest later.

Notice, there had been much debate in Acts 15 over this matter. The very presence of debate implies that this issue was not already known/ decided by the believers, or else what were they debating? Afterwards, James (the head of the church) makes a judicial decision regarding how Gentiles would be permitted to enter the church. What does he say? James says that Gentiles must do four things and then concludes with this: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 21:21, NASB). This is precisely what Rabbi Hillel said – the rest of the Law is commentary on the Golden Rule and the Gentiles should go learn it. Where was the Law taught? In the synagogues on the Sabbath in every city with a Jewish population.

Now we know that Jesus supported immersion for prospective Gentile converts (Matthew 28:19), and we know that James ruled that although Gentiles did not need to be circumcised at first, they still needed to learn the Law (Acts 21:21), and lastly we know that Paul also agreed that circumcision was unnecessary for new believers. However, what do we know about Paul and James’ relationship? In Acts 21:22-23, James tells Paul to inform the Gentiles about this ruling he just made regarding their status in the church and the topic of salvation. In other words, Paul is obeying James and acting as his messenger. In fact, this is not the only time we see Paul submitting to James.

In Galatians 2, we read that the early church was headquartered in Jerusalem and it was led by James. Peter was second in charge and John was third in charge. We see additional evidence in the fact that Paul thought that is was necessary to bring the topic of Gentile salvation to James in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). If Paul had the authority to decide the matter by himself, he would not have spent time and energy bringing the matter to a person (James) who had no authority. Yet, Paul thought it was necessary to make a long journey to bring the matter to James.
Another example is in Acts 21 when James commands Paul to pay for the Temple expenses of four other believers, to purify himself with them, and to offer sacrifices with them as part of the fulfillment of a Nazarite vow. Paul never argues with James and he never tells James that sacrifices are done away with. Rather, Paul obeys James.

Interestingly enough, we never find one example of James listening to or obeying Paul. However, we can find numerous examples of Paul listening to and obeying James. So considering that Paul was a subordinate to James and considering that James sent Paul to teach the Gentiles about his ruling in Acts 15, what else should we expect other than that Paul actually went out and obeyed James’ instruction? In other words, Paul’s job was to teach the Gentiles about what James had decided in Acts 15. James ruled that Gentiles should not eat things sacrificed to idols, eat strangled things, abstain from blood, and he said that Gentiles ought to abstain from fornication. We find evidence that Paul taught these in his epistles: fornication and impurity (1 Corinthians 6:18, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:3); prohibited foods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10); blood (possibly Romans 1:29 with “murder” being the shedding of blood).

Now that we know that Paul was sent to implement James’ decision among the Gentile nations, we are still left with the apparent contradiction that we started with: faith versus works. Let’s go back to Acts 15. The apostles were all Jews, and Jesus himself was a Jew, and all of them were accustomed to living by the standard of God’s Law. Gentiles, on the other hand, were not accustomed to living in accordance with God’s Law. Yet if the Gentiles were prophesied to be punished (Isaiah 13:11, 24:21, 66:14-17, 66:24, Romans 1:18-32, 2:1-10), how could they be saved? Did Gentiles have any hope? According to the apostles, yes they did. However, Gentiles could not continue living in their old ways. God required them to quit living in sin and trust in Him and His word. Yet Gentiles were so much farther behind Jews in terms of obedience and spirituality, could they ever reach a point where they would be pleasing to God?[3]

Because Israel was given the Law via the covenant at Sinai, they and their ancestors were obligated to obey God according to His eternal covenant.[4] They didn’t have an option. Gentiles, on the other hand, were never brought into a covenant relationship with God. It’s not that God didn’t love them, it’s just that He had foreordained Israel to be His special people to carry out His special plan. This is why God commanded Israel to be a light to the Gentiles (Genesis 49:10, Isaiah 49:6).

However, God did say that Gentiles who observe the Sabbath, give up idolatry, and accept the covenant He made with Israel will be blessed (Isaiah 56:3-9). In fact, when the Messiah reigns, all mankind will observe the Sabbath (Isaiah 66:23) and celebrate Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16-19). We even read in Jeremiah 16:19 (KJV), that “the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit.” In Zechariah 8:23 (NASB), “Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” A similar passage can be found in Isaiah 45:14.

But again, how can both James and Paul be right? Paul explains how in a very famous passage. In Romans 4:3 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (KJV). Yet, later on in Genesis, God says “Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5, KJV).

Notice the order: Abraham had faith and his faith was counted as righteousness. Later on, eleven chapters later, we read that Abraham did righteous works and was justified by these righteous works (see James 2:21). Abraham is uplifted to be the model of all converts,[5] especially considering that Abraham himself was the first convert from pagan idolatry to biblical religion (Joshua 24:2).

Thus, the model for Gentiles coming into faith in the God of Israel is this: if they have faith in God, this faith will be credited to them as righteousness because they don’t have any righteous works yet. After all, they just stopped worshiping false gods last week! In other words, their account is empty but they are indebted to God. However, those people who know better and know to do righteous works, their works are credited to them as righteousness because they are on a higher spiritual level than Gentiles fresh out of paganism and they know better. They know right from wrong. In this sense, Gentiles get A LOT of grace. God says "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:11, NASB). The Gentiles were infants, spiritually speaking, and they didn’t even know the different between their left and right hands (again, spiritually speaking). They were so spiritually low, they were associated with Nineveh’s animals. Also see for more information on Gentiles being likened to animals in the Bible.

Thus, Paul is appointed as an apostle to the Gentiles in a similar way that Jonah was instructed by God to warn a certain Gentile city to repent or else face destruction (Jonah 1:1, 3:1-10). If they would only repent, they could be saved from punishment (Romans 1:18-32, 2:1-10). According to James, Gentiles must abide by a minimum of four commandments (in addition to the ones they were already given such as belief in only one God, monotheism) and then they would learn the rest of the commandments at a later time when they would attend synagogue services on the Sabbath – something we know that Gentiles were already doing (Acts 13:42-43, 17:2-4, 17:17). Also see Isaiah 56:3-9, 66:23.

Not only was Jesus using baptism as a means to spark mass conversions in the Gentile world, but James helped set a standard for who should be baptized and who should not. It was Paul’s divinely ordained mission to ensure that Jesus’ and James’ plan for mass Gentile conversions succeeded.

Footnotes & References

[1] This legend was recorded by J. D. Eisenstein in Otzar Midrashim. For more information on the prayer attributed to Peter, see this article.

[2] Rabbi Hillel lived between 110-10 BC. Jesus was born, at the latest, 4 BC. While this might sound strange, we know this to be true because Herod ordered for the mass slaughter of babies in an attempt to kill baby Jesus but Herod died in 4 BC. Thus, the order by Herod to kill the babies could not have been declared after 4 BC since he was already dead. Thus Jesus must have been born during or before 4 BC.

[3] There is an interesting passage in the Babylonian Talmud which states: “R. Hanania son of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: Why are proselytes at the present time oppressed and visited with afflictions? Because they had not observed the seven Noahide commandments. R. Jose said: One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born. Why then are proselytes oppressed? — Because they are not so well acquainted with the details of the commandments as the Israelites” (Talmud Bavli, Yebamot 48b).

[4] See this article for dozens of verses which plainly state that God’s Law is eternal, everlasting, and forever.

[5] This is why there is a custom for converts to be called “ben Avraham” (son of Abraham) or “bat Avraham” (daughter of Abraham) – because Abraham is seen as the father not only of all Jews but also all converts. See this article for more information.